China put one of its best-known dissidents on trial Wednesday for his role in creating a political manifesto.
With police, journalists and diplomats gathered outside a Beijing courthouse, a few demonstrators showed up to show support for Liu Xiaobo, or seek media attention for their own grievances.
Inside, Liu pleaded not guilty to the charges of "incitement to subvert state power." The court said Liu had committed "serious crimes." His lawyers and relatives take this to mean that Liu could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.
More than 10,000 people signed the Charter 08, a liberal political manifesto calling for human rights and democracy. Many signers were questioned by police, but Liu was the only one to be arrested so far.
Liu spent 20 months in jail for his role in the 1989 pro-democracy protests, although he was never charged with a crime. He spent 1996-1999 in a labor camp for some of the hundreds of political essays he has written in the past 20 years.
His wife, Liu Xia, said that given his long history of activism, she had worried that authorities could easily paint her husband as a ringleader of the Charter 08 movement.
"I told him that if they arrest anyone first, it will be you," she said in an interview. "If they search anyone's home it'll be ours, and if anyone goes to jail to visit you, it'll be me. I said I'm so sick of passing the days that way. He said, 'OK, I'll only sign the charter.' "
The charter does what Chinese intellectuals often do. It looks at China's modern history and examines why, over the past century, successive governments, from republicans to nationalists to communists, have failed to deliver a modern and democratic state.
Most of the charter was written by Zhang Zuhua, a former communist youth league official. He says that both Chinese liberals and conservatives agree on the need for political reform.
"The questions is: Given China's specific conditions, how do we achieve what we call universal values?" Zhang said, speaking from his home, where police keep him under surveillance. "In the past two or three decades, nobody has addressed this question very systematically."
In China, leftists are considered conservatives and it's the rightists who are liberals — the opposite of how it is in the United States. Charter 08 specifically reflects the views of China's liberals or rightists, and its prescriptions would sound familiar to Americans: separation of powers, federalism, and competitive elections at all levels of government.
Liu Xiaobo's former lawyer Mo Shaoping, who also signed the charter, says all this is just part of a normal debate about forms of government.
"From a legal viewpoint, federalism or a unitary state are just different ways to organize a country," he says. "They have absolutely nothing to do with overthrowing the state."
Police discouraged Mo from representing Liu this time because he had also signed the charter. Mo delegated Liu's defense to another lawyer at his firm.
Charter 08 has its critics, particularly on the political left. Among them is Zhang Hongliang, an economist at the Central Institute of Nationalities in Beijing. He believes that the charter's drafters are just elitists who only want the kind of democracy that they can control and profit from.
"Charter 08 calls for freedom of the press and the right to organize political parties. Leftists support this. But if we had freedom of the press now, China's media would be completely dominated by rich people and foreigners."
Zhang advocates a return to the more egalitarian days of Mao Zedong's rule.
Chinese authorities have silenced critics on both the left and the right. Zhang Zuhua says China's government just does not welcome citizens' prescriptions for political reform.
"The government has always seen people who bring up these political topics and hold different views as hostile forces," he remarks. "It reacts with a very outdated political logic, no matter how moderate or rational or constructive your views may be."
For now, debate about Charter 08 is mostly limited to intellectual circles, since authorities have censored any mention of it from the media and the Internet.
In an interview last year, Liu Xiaobo said this is why the plight of China's dissidents remains largely unknown.
"Things that are not exposed in the domestic media cannot generate the pressure of public opinion. "Dissidents can only rely on pressure from foreign governments, media and NGOs."
China has rejected recent calls by the U.S. and European Union for Liu's release. A verdict in his case is expected at a time when many foreigners' attentions will be elsewhere: Christmas Day.